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We Found Love And Healing In Pittsburgh

News of the largest attack against Jews in the history of America was devastating. 11 people were murdered during Sabbath services at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Many rabbinic colleagues and I knew we just had to be there.

As soon as we arrived, we made our way to the makeshift memorial in front of Tree of Life synagogue. The names of the slain were listed on separate pieces of oaktag. Candles and flowers adorned each memorial. On each was written the words from Psalms 34:16: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and will save those whose spirits are crushed.”

This was not the first mass murder of people in America because of their religious beliefs. Baptists were murdered in Texas, Sikhs in Wisconsin, and Christians in South Carolina.

And, of course, Jews have been murdered in major attacks around the world: in Buenos Aires, Paris, Istanbul and Israel — over and over. But now it’s hit home — Jews cut down because they were Jews — in America.

The murder of a person, as horrific as it is, is the murder of a person. But the murder of a person because of who he or she is, is the murder of every person because of who they are. The shooter wasn’t looking for a particular synagogue. He was looking for any synagogue. In that sense, all synagogues, all houses of worship were attacked that Sabbath day.

Compressed into the few hours we stood at the memorial was a panoply of people — caring, loving, they came from everywhere.

Pastor Dorothy Stubbe quoted Isaiah 54:10, “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, My unfailing love for you will not be shaken.”

Matthew, a young man with tattoos everywhere, drew close. He explained that he was finishing a year of being drug-free. “I’ve come to offer thanksgiving by reciting prayers for the Jews murdered here.” Tim arrived with his bagpipes. He asked for permission — as if he needed permission — to play. His hands were quivering as the assembled listened closely to his rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

We formed a circle. Matthew, Tim, Pastor Stubbe, representatives of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association Rapid Response Team and Rabbis Uri Topolosky, Daniel Braune Friedman and Adam Raskin swayed side to side as we sang, “Because of my brothers and sisters and friends, peace to you.” Hearts were lifted when scores of young women from a local yeshiva arrived. They lifte,d their voices in prayer, singing, “In every generation there are those who arise to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

The local Lubavitch Yeshiva was there as well. During their prayers, Mayor Bill Peduto arrived, accompanied by a police detail. Blessings were offered to the injured police and words of thank you for their risking everything to save Jewish lives.

Standing with Chabad rabbis blessing and thanking the police in the presence of Mayor Bill Peduto. Image by Courtesy Rabbi Uri Topolosky

Every officer was hugged. Pittsburgh was not Kristallnacht, whose 80th anniversary we commemorate this week. There, the police attacked; here, they protected — selflessly, courageously, heroically.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation carried the torah out of the synagogue building. Soon after, we embraced. Throughout this horror, Rabbi Myers has carried himself with rare strength, humility and holiness.

Early that evening, we attended a memorial gathering at Carnegie Mellon University. The auditorium was packed. In the front were a few rows reserved for faculty and outside guests. Standing behind, close to each other holding hands were students of all backgrounds, all races — pain etched deeply on their faces.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai stirred the crowd with powerful words — and led a prayer for the injured using the Debbie Friedman MiSheberakh melody, beseeching God for the renewal and healing of body and soul.

At Carnegie Mellon, a middle aged man told me that he wasn’t sure he should have fulfilled a promise to take his son to the Steelers football game the day after the Saturday attack. Not wanting to disappoint his son, he went.

During the game he bought a beer. He wondered aloud whether it is appropriate in a time of tragedy to be drinking. The African American woman behind the counter comforted him. As they concluded their conversation, she stepped toward him asking, “Can I give you a hug”?

That night we attended services at the Beth Shalom Conservative Synagogue. The son and daughter in law of Joyce Fienberg were present, sitting near Rabbi Uri Topolosky. They joined in reciting Psalms with the congregation.

Our last stop that night was a visit to the home of Shira Berkovits and Ari Spiro, who had recently moved to Pittsburgh from Riverdale, where they were members of our synagogue. Sitting at the front desk of the building was Bonnie, whose late brother-in-law was amongst the murdered. She explained as well that the brother of her first husband, from whom she was divorced, was also amongst the victims.

Rabbi Topolosky gently asked whether he could offer a prayer and sing a song in their memory. Bonnie joined us in the lobby. We held hands as Rabbi Topolosky, accompanied by his guitar, sang uplifting spiritual melodies. As residents filed into the lobby, they joined in the circle of friendship.

It was a painful but uplifting day. Painful when imagining the scene in the Tree of Life Congregation, but uplifting because of the love we experienced across the spectrum. One of my favorite rabbinic teachings came to mind: Hate defies the rule. But, the rabbis go on, Love also defies the rule. (Genesis Rabbah 55:9)

And the only reason, the rabbis continue, we are here today, is that throughout history, there were more of those who loved than those who hated. The love was deeper and higher, overwhelming and pushing away the darkness.

• 

On Tuesday, October 30, joined by students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, I prayed the morning service at Congregation Poale Zedeck. The rabbi, Daniel Yolkut, greets us warmly.

From the services, we walked to the kosher Dunkin Donuts. Seeing our kippot, a man approached: “Is there anything I can do to ease your pain? Perhaps a joke will help?”

“What is a bunny rabbit’s favorite type of music?” he asked. With a glow in his eyes he responded, “Hip hop.” A total stranger, knowing we were hurting , tried to bring a smile to our faces.

We attend the first of the funerals at the massive Rodef Shalom Congregation. Thousands came to pay tribute to Cecil and David Rosenthal, special needs adults. Beloved, they were the symbols of purity and innocence. Cecil served as the greeter. As people entered the synagogue, he was the first to welcome them in. Some people have suggested that Cecil probably greeted the shooter. Cecil and David shared the honor of taking out and returning the Torah to the Ark, a holy task they proudly performed.

As a Cohen, I stood outside of the funeral service. I watched as a multitude of people entered through the mammoth Rodef Shalom doors.

A young man in priestly garb approached me. We embraced. A rabbi and a priest, in mourning together. He introduced himself as Reverend Terrence O’Connor. His mother, Judy, who is Jewish, stood nearby. Judy was married to Bob O’Connor, the former Mayor of Pittsburgh.

Making matters more interesting, a young Orthodox woman with them shared that she was Reverend O’Connor’s cousin. With a wry smile she said, “we have interesting Passover Seders together.”

At the conclusion of the service, the coffins of Cecil and David were carried out. Each was placed in a separate hearse. Together with Chabad rabbis, we walked behind, reciting sentences from the Psalms.

Standing in songful prayer at the hearses of Cecil and David Rosenthal. Image by Courtesy Rabbi Uri Topolosky

The hearses made their way to the other side of the building and came to a halt as family members got into their cars for the procession to the cemetery.

Soon, we were joined by almost 100 people who had come to Pittsburgh from Washington. We held hands and began soulfully singing “I lift my eyes to the mountains.” Looking heavenward, we asked, “when will these killings stop?”

Reverend Richard A. Mosley of Baltimore puts his arm around me. The Reverend explained that when the local Baltimore African American community felt threatened a few years ago, Rabbi Etan Mintz — who had also come from Baltimore to Pittsburgh — stood with them. Whispering in my ear, the Reverend continued: “Etan was there for me when I needed him. And so, this Saturday I’ll be bringing my whole congregation to stand in front of Etan’s synagogue to protect my friends.”

His words touched my heart. His presence would be a sign not only of strength but of love.

We made our way back to the Tree of Life Congregation. Standing at the Memorial, Rabbi Herzfeld of DC’s National Synagogue and Rabbi Antine and Rabbanit Dasi, both of Beth Sholom of Potomac, addressed the crowd.

My niece by marriage, Amy, together with her son Simon, were also there, holding each other close. Rabbi Herzfeld and Rabbi Antine hold their children as well. The names of the murdered are individually called out. After each name we lift our voices high declaring — Am Yisrael Chai.

The youngsters here had missed a day of school, but the educational message of being there for others will be one they will never forget.

We walked to the Poale Zedeck synagogue, where Daniel Herrmann, the commander of Squirrel Hill police force, addressed the crowd. Rabbi Herzfeld graciously asked me to offer blessings to the commander. After asking permission to place my hands on his head, I recited the priestly benedictions. The commander, strong and resolute, shed a tear. Our losses were his losses.

Priestly Benediction being given to Commander Daniel Herrmann. Image by Courtesy Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Famished, we stopped for a coffee. The woman behind the counter, who turned out to be a Sikh, saw my kippah. Looking at me with saddened eyes, she said, “I can’t take any money from you.” When inquiring why, she responded: “I want to spread the love.”

That evening, we visited Cecil and David’s family, who were sitting shiva at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Together with YCT students, we sat with Eliezer, Cecil and David’s father. We held hands during our conversation. He told us a little about his history. His father, he said, helped Rabbi Solomon Freehof write responsa for the Reform movement.

We met Joy, Eliezer’s wife and the boys’ mother, and Cecil and David’s sisters Diane and Michele. Michele had worked in public relations for the Pittsburgh Steelers, many of whom were at the funeral. Off to the side sat Brett Keisel, a former Steelers defensive lineman. His striking presence was not only felt physically, but emotionally and even spiritually.

From there, we moved to the Jewish community center where Miriam, the wife of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, stood greeting visitors. As we approached, her eyes were deeply mournful. Together with Chovevei students and Rabbi Jon Leener, who had also come to Pittsburgh, she spoke of Jerry’s gentility of soul. We offered the prayer that given the horror, good emerge; that this become more than a kumbaya moment.

Exhausted, my mind focused on the phrase in the week’s torah portion, Chayei Sarah: Avraham came to mourn Sarah and cry.

During the day, each of us in our own way joined the mourning process. We were consumed with trying to be there for others. Only afterwards, when catching my breath and reciting the Shema, did the emotions, the tears and the cries flow. One can only imagine how long it will take for Pittsburgh’s heroic rabbis, first responders, social workers and Federation leadership — consumed with their responsibility to be there for the bereaved and the community — to find a quiet moment to process and emote.

On Wednesday morning, we attended the funeral of Joyce Fienberg. Joyce’s husband succumbed to cancer a year ago, and now, she is brutally gone. The entrance to main sanctuary of Congregation Beth Shalom is many steps above ground level.

As the coffin was carried out, the pallbearers carefully maneuvered down the steps. The coffin was placed in a hearse. We stood nearby. Young women from the local yeshiva were there as well.

Joined by Rabbis Adam Scheier, Barry Gelman and Scott Hausman-Weiss, who had come in from Montreal, Houston and New York, and others, we sang the melody of B’oi Beshalom (Come in Peace) to Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah (Come my Beloved to greet the Sabbath bride).
Words of prayer are expansive, encompassing different moments of life. Could it be, in that place, at that time, God is the Dodi, God is the Beloved?

Could it be that Boi Beshalom was God, tearfully greeting Joyce, the kallah?

For the rest of my life, the words of Lecha Dodi will never be the same.

• 

Circling back to the Memorial at Tree of Life Congregation, we met Elli, who, accompanied by his guitar, leads those present in soulful music. The rain begins to fall. From the heavens, God was crying.

We rushed to make it on time to the funeral of Irving Younger. It too was held at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef approaches, and thoughtfully asked if I’d like to write a note to the bereaved. My hands quivered jotting down a few words.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the funeral director was kind enough to bring Irving’s children Jared and Jordanna over. We gathered round and offered words of comfort. As it turns out, Jared was a practicing Christian. At the service he noted the Jewish tradition of never losing hope. Seeking to express that dream as best he could, he asked everyone to rise to sing Hatikvah.

We attended the shiva of Joyce Fienberg. We shared with her family the moments we sang near the hearse the Lecha Dodi, and the way it could be interpreted. They graciously listened as we offered the blessing that they feel the love overflowing from everywhere.

• 

Pittsburgh is in pain. Jews everywhere are in pain. The world is in pain. Built into the pain, however, is the kindness and goodness of people everywhere. One wonders how could we build on this goodwill.

A good start would be to begin a campaign against hate — any form of hate. Not only hate actions, but hate language.

The old jingle “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me” is simply not true.

Why not set aside a day to be observed by the entire nation, called “Say No To Hate Day”? It would be a day when all Americans resolve not to engage in bad speech. As my mother taught me, if you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing. It would be a day when the media would resolve not to publish or air any negative story. Just positive, the positive goodness of people; what they do for others. Their faces, not the faces of mass murderers, will be on front pages of newspapers and tv screens everywhere in America.

Maybe, just maybe, the spirit of that day could spill over, and we would recognize that the “other,” those who are different than we, are no less godly as all human beings are created in the image of God.

It has been my belief for decades that when horrors like what happened in Pittsburgh occur, our responsibility is not to run from that place, but to run to that place. Never being overbearing, it is to be “present” and sweetly and humbly empathizing. Our message is simple: your pain is our pain, your suffering is our suffering. We are all one in grief, and with God’s help, will soon be one in joy and celebration.

With Rabbi Adam Scheier, we prepare to leave Pittsburgh; we feel drawn to remain. A woman at the airport approaches. Seeing our kippot, she breaks down, and with tears offers condolences.

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